If you've been following the lead-up to this year's Super Bowl, you've probably seen the statistics comparing the career arcs of quarterbacks Tom Brady and Russell Wilson. Both players reached two Super Bowls in their first three seasons as starters. Brady's teams went 40-12; Wilson's went 42-13. Brady had thrown 75 touchdowns to 41 interceptions, while Wilson had tossed 82 touchdowns and 31 picks. Brady threw for 11,523 yards in his first three seasons, just a shade under Wilson's 11,591 yards.
Both players came into the NFL as underrated prospects who had to beat out veterans who seemed to have the starter's role by way of huge contracts (Drew Bledsoe in Brady's case, Matt Flynn for Wilson), both players started their careers as mere distributors on teams led by great running games and dominant defenses, and both players have proven to be winners at their position, however nebulous that tag may be in any team sport.
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First meeting with Patriots sparked Russell Wilson's rookie breakout
Brady and Wilson couldn't be more different in playing style and body type, and the stats are skewed a bit by the fact that Brady watched from the sidelines as a rookie in 2000, completing just one pass on three attempts for six yards. For his part, Wilson has only rarely been forced to carry the offense with his arm. Still, these two quarterbacks who have faced off just once in a 24-23 Seattle win in 2012 have one thing in common: They overcame plenty of obstacles to place themselves atop the position's hierarchy.
Brady, of course, has compiled a more extensive list of accomplishments. As his career went on, he became one of the most prolific quarterbacks of his generation, right up there with archrival Peyton Manning. Brady was able to parlay his great football mind, ferocious competitiveness and impressive adaptability into a career that will make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he walks away, and he'll always be in the mix when the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history are discussed.
That's the precipice on which Wilson stands now. If the Seahawks beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX, he'll become the youngest quarterback ever to win two Super Bowls and the only quarterback to win two in his first three seasons. There's no question that he has the physical talent, football smarts and work ethic to develop into one of the best in his own generation of quarterbacks, but as much as he's accomplished in this scant three-year period, there's still a ways to go. Wilson runs himself out of the reads of open receivers, he leaves plays on the field, and his four-interception performance in Seattle's eventual win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game showed that when it comes to reading the field on the run, Wilson still struggles at times. Yes, only two of those interceptions were his fault -- the other two bounced off the hands of receiver Jermaine Kearse -- but the point still stands. Wilson still needs to develop.
What makes Wilson's potential so fascinating is what he was able to do after those four picks, leading his team to an overtime victory with some truly impressive throws. Only time will tell how he will move through his career, when his estimable scrambling ability diminishes, the makeup of the Seattle roster changes, and he's forced to take more on his shoulders.
Brady benefited from a great running game and a stellar defense through his first few seasons, and that as much as anything is why he has three Super Bowl rings. As he's become a better passer, the Patriots have not consistently surrounded him with the kind of talent required to maintain that pace. They came closest in the 2007 season, of course, but their undefeated run was stopped short by the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, and they ran out of gas against the same Giants team four years later in Super Bowl XLVI. New England will try for a fourth NFL title with a power running game and a much better defense than Bill Belichick's teams have fielded in the last decade, and maybe that will be the ticket to Brady's fourth ring.
As for Wilson, the jury is still out as to whether he can not only maintain his efficiency with an outstanding support system but propel the Seahawks when being a "game manager" isn't enough.
"I think it's very hard when you come into the league and you're 25 or 26 years old and you think you can carry a team with your arm and win a Super Bowl that way -- I mean, probably nobody's done it," former NFL quarterback and current NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner told me Tuesday. "You have to have help early on, and I think that's what Russell Wilson gets. He gets big-game experience, and he gets chances to play in tight games, and he can mature into the quarterback we've seen already.
"The next step is whether he'll mature into the kind of quarterback ... when Marshawn Lynch is gone, and we don't have the Legion of Boom on defense, can he still find himself in Super Bowls like a Tom Brady? That becomes the next question: Without great teams, can you still be great? It's too early to tell, and I don't even want to put that burden on him."
Clearly, the Seahawks don't yet, either. No starting quarterback has thrown fewer passes over the last two seasons than Wilson, and that's by design -- not only does Seattle thrive on its ground game and defense; there's also the matter of Wilson as a pure runner. The last time the Seahawks and Patriots faced off, Wilson asked Pete Carroll to take the rookie training wheels off in the week leading up to the game. Wilson connected on six deep throws after hitting just seven in his first five NFL games, and New England didn't have an answer.
This year's New England defense is better, but the challenges Wilson poses are also tougher.
"There’s just something, I can’t really put it into words," Belichick said of Wilson last week. "Wilson’s just got an instinctiveness. He just knows where people are. It looks like he’s going to get tackled and he doesn’t. It kind of reminds of watching [Roger] Staubach. You think he doesn’t see them, but he sees them or somehow he just knows they’re there. He’s got an uncanny sense of awareness of what’s around him, good or bad. I don’t know how you -- I can’t really define it. I don’t know how you coach it; it’s just an awareness that all great players have it. All good players have it. I think he just has it at a higher level. It’s really impressive."
Staubach agrees with that comparison, as he recently told the Sporting News.
"As a quarterback, you've got to convince your teammates you can do it together," Staubach said. "That's a really important trait," he said. "Russell Wilson is at the top of the list of getting his teammates to believe in him ... a competitor is going to be more successful in that fourth quarter. Russell had three really bad quarters [in the championship game], but he made sure he wasn't going to have that bad fourth quarter, too. Some quarterbacks, you know they're done. Not Russell."
That's all well and good, but the best quarterbacks in the game can deliver consistent, repeatable, outstanding mechanics. And that's where Wilson, whose randomness as a player works as both a positive and a negative, needs to grow.
"Brady's a better passer than Wilson, with everything that goes into being a passer, but the Patriots of the early 2000s and the Seahawks of the last three years are really teams driven by defense, and defense camouflages the offensive approach," Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup recently told me. "In Seattle's case, there's offensive inconsistency; in the Patriots' case, it was an offense built more on running the ball."
So how did Brady get better? How does any quarterback get better?
"Well, it's natural development," Cosell said. "First of all, he's gotten stronger. His mechanics ... he is like Joe Montana in that repetitive mechanics are everything to him. He's been like that his whole career. He understands why he is what he is, and how he has to play to do that. Guys like Brady and Peyton Manning are built in repetitive mechanics. They're not random players, ever. They play the same way almost all the time."
Cosell then told a very interesting story about Joe Montana. After his first year in Kansas City in 1993, Montana called Bill Walsh, who was then out of football, and expressed concern that his mechanics were not what they should be, and he went to work out with Walsh, to get things back on track. That's the kind of work it takes to make the jump from game manager to franchise linchpin, and the work never really stops.
As for Wilson, what will he need to do to make that jump?
"This is an answer you may not expect, but I think his greatness as a quarterback will become a function of system," Cosell concluded. "Someone like Drew Brees has limitations, but Drew also plays with a really good offensive mind in Sean Payton. Payton was able, through scheme and concepts, to create a scenario in which Brees could be a true pocket quarterback. Ultimately, he's going to have to get to that point. When he gets to that point, nobody can say, but this season, I thought he took more hits than in his first two seasons, and that will probably continue. He'll slow down, but defenses won't. He's going to have to start that transition.
"So, the question becomes, how does the coaching staff help him do that? And I'm sure there's no question in their minds ... they're back in the Super Bowl, playing the way they're playing, and logic would dictate that they believe this is the way they can keep doing that. But I think the scheme needs to help Wilson if he's going to get to that point. I think he's capable of it -- like Brees, he's an over-the-top thrower, and I think he can compensate to some degree for his height. There will always be a few [errant passes], that's how it is, but the scheme needs to allow him to do that. Their scheme ... we're not talking about this to rip their scheme, but it's a very basic passing game that doesn't present a lot of options. It doesn't present a lot of ways for him to get the ball out quickly."
In the end, the Seahawks will have to find the best way to balance read-option principles and a more schematically complex passing game ... or perhaps tone down the running game as Wilson grows as a quarterback.
"If you're going to continue to run read-option stuff -- by nature, that passing game is limited," Cosell said. "What will your passing game be with that? Do you start incorporating Chip Kelly elements, as [former Kelly assistant and current Dolphins offensive coordinator] Bill Lazor did with Ryan Tannehill in Miami? Is that where they go? I mean, they're in the Super Bowl for the second year in a row, but they're doing it with a passing game that won't help Wilson become what he could be."
Carroll was asked a few days ago about Wilson's rare ability to do great things when under enormous pressure. The championship game comeback proved that, as did the 14-point fourth-quarter turnaround Wilson engineered against New England as a rookie.
"There’s no question that Russell has... tremendous presence and awareness and habits and character and smarts, and athleticism to go along with that," Carroll said. "I’m not sure what that 'it' thing is and I think people have different opinions of what that is. Does he give you a better insight into it? He’s showing you the makeup of a player that has that. He’s very open and he’s very able to tell you what he’s feeling like and what he sees and what makes him who he is. I think he’s teaching you what it is for Russell, and I don’t think it’s the same for all players. But, I think he’s a tremendous study for anybody and a kid that has tremendous ability, tremendous potential, great competitive spirit and also the results to back that up."
Wilson has the raw tools to become one of the league's truly great quarterbacks. The level to which he ascends in the next few years will determine whether he's remembered as a cog in a bigger machine or the rare player who defines the organization around him.